Headed Toward Hope

Suicide, Mental Illness Awareness Walks To Be Held In Harrisonburg

Posted: March 21, 2014

James Madison University junior Jacki Ferrance (far right) drops a flower at a vigil after the Walk for Hope held March 31, 2012. (Photo by Justin Falls / DN-R, File)
James Madison University junior Lauren Gerson signs a mirror with a positive message during the Walk for Hope rally held March 31, 2012. (Photo by Justin Falls / DN-R, File)

A project started by a James Madison University alumna has outlasted her time in Harrisonburg, and has developed a life of its own.

In 2010, when Ellison was working toward a Master’s and Educational Specialist degree in clinical mental health counseling at JMU, she trekked up to Winchester with a few fellow students for an Out of the Darkness Walk.

The depression and suicide awareness walks, which are sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, are held nationwide.

But after attending one, Ellison and her fellow classmates wanted to bring the idea closer to home.

Out Of The Darkness
After losing her 20-year-old brother, Joe, to suicide in 1997, Lisa Ellison noticed a concerning phenomenon.  

“There’s not a lot of venues where survivors …  can come together, share their experiences and their grief, but also the ways that they are coping,” she said during a phone interview; the 39-year-old is now a pro bono therapist volunteering at The Women’s Initiative, a nonprofit in Charlottesville, while she works toward earning her Licensed Professional Counselor status.

In 2011 — just one year after that trip to Winchester — Ellison’s efforts were realized when JMU held its first Out of the Darkness Walk.

That year, about 80 people participated, and “we were delighted by the response,” Ellison said. But in 2012, more than 200 community members showed up, and that number grew to 300 the following year.

“It’s just a great opportunity for people to come together in a supportive and loving environment to help bring awareness to a very real issue that affects a lot of people,” Ellison said.

The group will walk around JMU’s campus this year, starting at the Festival Conference and Student Center. The memory wall, where people bring pictures, poems, stories and other items to honor loved ones lost to suicide, will return this year, as well.

The event, sponsored by JMU’s chapter of Chi Sigma Iota —  a nonprofit, international honor society for those in the counseling field — also serves as a fundraiser for local and national suicide prevention and awareness programs.

Last year, the walk raised more than $13,000, exceeding its $10,000 goal, according to Elizabeth Cranford, a current member of CSI. With the same goal this year, the group had raised almost $3,800 as of March 18.

The website will stay open to donations until July 1, she added. To donate or register for the free event, visit afsp.donordrive.com, click on “Out of the Darkness Campus Walks” and find JMU’s link on the right side.

Ellison pointed out that about 90 percent of people who die as a result of suicide have diagnosable mental illnesses.

“My brother was a really wonderful person who also struggled with depression,” Ellison said. “He didn’t know how to talk to other people about what was going on. …  Knowing that other people are out there who will definitely offer help is an important message.

“The more we can talk about this, the more we can get people the treatment that they need.”

Walk For Hope
The fourth annual local Out of the Darkness Walk is scheduled for March 30, the day after the similarly-themed third annual Walk for Hope organized by all four local colleges.

The Austin Frazier Memorial Fund, established in memory of a JMU student lost to suicide in October 2009, funds the yearly event, which brings together JMU, Eastern Mennonite University, Bridgewater College and Blue Ridge Community College. This year, other financial sponsors include the Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia based at JMU and Sentara-RMH Behavioral Health.  

This year, the event will start later than usual — at 11:30 a.m. March 29 — and involve a roughly two-mile walk from JMU’s Memorial Hall to the heart of EMU’s campus, according to Randy Hook, the main coordinator for this year’s event and the director of counseling services at Bridgewater College.

An administrative representative from each college will help to lead the walk. For example, Bridgewater College’s President David Bushman will participate, Hook said.

Vendors, a performance by area band The Steel Wheels and a talk by former central Valley resident Keith Morris will welcome those who complete the walk.

“[Morris] dealt with childhood sexual abuse and, later in life, after trying to suppress it, got to a place where he just felt absolutely overwhelmed,” Hook explained. “[He] went to a bridge to jump off the bridge …  [and felt] something that day that pulled him away from that.”

The Steel Wheels wrote a song for its 2012 album of the same name, titled “Lay Down Lay Low,” that tells Morris’ story.

To register for the free event, search for Walk for Hope Harrisonburg on Facebook. Although the event is not a fundraiser, those wishing to donate should contact Hook at rhook@bridgewater.edu.

The Sad Truth
Lennis Echterling, a counseling professor and director of counselor programs at JMU, has been to both events and whole-heartedly supports mental illness and suicide awareness.

“We have over 38,000 lives lost each year in the U.S. alone to suicide,” he said, explaining that the current rate in the nation is 12.4 suicides per 100,000 people each year.

“In Virginia, the suicide rate is lower, [but] we happen to live in a part of Virginia in which the relative rate of suicide is higher,” he added.

One of the common myths about suicide is that it’s more likely to happen in urban areas, but it actually occurs in rural places more often, he said.

Counties in southwestern Virginia have higher suicide rates as compared with Richmond and Northern Virginia, he explained, likely due to a combination of economic hardship, social isolation and easy access to highly lethal means.

“The majority of completed suicides are done with firearms,” he said.

The rate of suicide among men is three to five times higher than for women, with the most at-risk demographic being men ages 65 and older.

“The rate for women really doesn’t change much over their lifespan,” he added.

For about the last 15 years of the 20th century, the suicide rate was dropping slightly each year, but it’s since gone back up, Echterling said.

“One of the best preventions is good intervention, providing easily available and accessible and immediate treatment for psychological disorders,” he said, adding that society cold be better at identifying such illnesses among police officers and military — both high-risk groups — and eliminating the stigma associated with mental illness.

“We’re recognizing now that clinical [mental illness] is a neurological disease; [there are] brain chemistry changes taking place,” he said. “This is not someone who is weak of character. This is brain chemistry at work here [for which] medication and counseling and therapy can make a difference.”

Education and outreach are also very important for combating suicide, he says, “and that’s why walks such as these …  are so important not just to raise funds, but to call attention and to educate the public to let them know that if they’re having these kinds of thoughts and ideas, that they’re not alone and that there are people out there who can make a difference.”

Contact Candace Sipos at   574-6275 or csipos@dnronline.com.

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